A letter from Auschwitz

These stamps are affixed to one of the most moving artifacts I hold: a letter, dated February 23, 1945, written by Professor Henri Limousin, a French prisoner, following his liberation from Auschwitz. It was passed down my family. Here is my translation:

Dear Sir:

I have the pleasure to inform you that I have been recently liberated by the Russian army, following dramatic adventures, which I hope to be able to tell you in person soon, since we have been promised a prompt repatriation. My health is now improving, thanks to a substantial diet and better moral conditions. I hope you and your family are in good health, and that life has returned to its normal course in Clermont. I would be happy to have some news from you. 

Very truly yours.

H. Limousin, Inmate No. 200213

Freed from Auschwitz Camp, Upper Silesia, c/o the French Embassy in Moscow, via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This is it: a single sheet of paper, stamped and addressed on the back, no envelope. Think of its journey: from the barracks of Auschwitz to the French Embassy in Moscow, and then on to Auvergne. How I wish I knew of the “dramatic adventures” Limousin wanted to recount. A member of the Resistance and a professor at the medical school of the University of Clermont-Ferrand, in Auvergne, he had been arrested in March 1944.

I found an echo of his Auschwitz experience in the Nuremberg Trial archives by way of the testimony of Dr. Franz Blaha, a Czech physician prisoner and the camp’s chief pathologist. Professor Limousin told him that, out of his transport of approximately 2,000 persons, 800 died en route during the 12-day journey from France, bodies discarded along the way. That was 12 days in the heat without anything to drink. The train arrived at Auschwitz with 500 corpses on board. That left approximately 700 survivors, most of whom died shortly afterwards.

Dr. Blaha remembered this transport well, because he was ordered by the SS to perform autopsies on the French transport victims, and found that they had died of asphyxiation and dehydration. This autopsy request followed inquiries from the Red Cross about this transport’s high death toll (yes, the Red Cross monitored such atrocities) and the SS contended that the deportees had simply fought in the cattle cars and killed each other. As Blaha recalled, detailed reports followed such inquiries, and nothing ever changed.

Blaha also remembered that Professor Limousin arrived “in very poor condition.” Somehow he pulled through and was chosen by Blaha to become his assistant. Both men survived and Blaha went on to testify at Nuremberg about the “medical experiments” performed by SS doctors in the camps. Professor Limousin died in 1966, having survived 21 years after his liberation.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum posts a video of Dr. Blaha’s testimony at the Nuremberg Trial (in German).

The passage of time gives us all the more reason to treasure the testimony of Auschwitz eyewitnesses – and great writers – Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. Claude Lanzmann’s harrowing 9-hour documentary Shoah is a must-watch. Listen to the dead…

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